Oakland students receive free internet access from Sprint

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“Mom, I need your hotspot!” Irma Avila said, mimicking her 11-year-old son Agustin Cuevas. She was laughing about how hard it is to have her kids finish their homework since they do not have Wi-Fi at home. Six of her eight kids are assigned school assignments online on a daily basis, and they all use her cellphone’s hotspot.

Avila went to the 81st Avenue branch of the Oakland Public Library on Friday to pick up free cellphone hotspot devices for each of her high school girls. She hopes this will alleviate the chaos of letting her children use her phone’s hotspot. She already divides its use into sets of 30 minutes in order to get a reasonable internet speed.

“It’s a really good opportunity for the kids,” said Avila about the event.

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the Oakland non-profit Tech Exchange collaborated with the telecommunications company Sprint to give away free hotspots, smartphones, and tablets to district high school students. A hotspot is a mobile and wireless device that shares wireless internet access. The event was part of the 1Million Project run by Sprint and the Sprint Foundation, which will provide 200,000 hotspots over five years to high school students in the United States who do not have access to the internet at home.

The project started last spring when the Northern California marketing team at Sprint approached the OUSD and Tech Exchange to give out 3,200 hotspots devices for high school students in 9th and 12th grade. Even though the program had some looseness and gave devices to students in 10th and 11th grade, the plan was to give seniors the opportunity to have access to internet for them to plan their future after high school, and for freshmen to be the first generation of the 1Million Project in Oakland.

One fourth of the city’s residents do not have internet at home, and almost half of its young people do not have access to internet at home, according to Seth Hubbert, executive director of Tech Exchange.

“If a student goes home and it’s digitally dark, they really can’t dive deeper and run towards whatever it is they are passionate about,” said Hubbert. He added access to the internet at home can relieve socioeconomic issues, for example, by allowing people to apply to jobs online or to inquire about city services.

The disparity in access to internet at home, generally among people from low-income backgrounds, is called the “digital divide.” On the 1Million Project website, this concept is referred as the “homework gap.” According to Liz Davidoff, regional marketing manager for Sprint for Northern California and Nevada, the solution is to assist those who do not have access to internet connections at home.

“Very often, kids do not have access [to internet] at home and they’re limited in terms of school access after they are done with school. They’re looking for other places to go to secure their internet access, and very often do not have the devices that they need,” said Davidoff.

The student application to receive a free hotspot device was simple. Students under the age of 17 turned in a printed form signed by a parent or legal guardian. At the first station at the event, students signed an agreement of responsibility to take care of the device. (The students must return the device once they graduate from high school.) At the second station, students received an assigned activated device. The third station was for an optional survey provided by Sprint.

All the hotspot devices have unlimited data, which means there is not a cap for internet use, calls, or text messages. The devices are completely free, which includes a free replacement if it malfunctions, breaks, is stolen or lost.

Fremont High School junior Vanessa Boytes, 17, was the first person to arrive at the event. She heard about the event from her cousin, who works for the school district.

“I do have it [internet at home] but it is really slow. It gets annoying. Sometimes I don’t even do it [homework] because my internet sucks,” said Boytes. At home, she shares a Wi-Fi connection with her aunt, uncle, and three cousins. She added it is already hard to concentrate with so many people living at home.

Four out of the seven classes Boytes is taking this year require her to access the internet, she said. In order to complete her schoolwork and homework, she arrives at school an hour before her classes begin, and leaves an hour after school ends. She said the smartphone she received will come in very handy right now since she lost her cellphone a few weeks back and her family could not afford to buy her a new one. “With what is happening with the fires, I [would] like to stay in contact with my family members,” said Boytes.

Sprint provided 100 smartphones to give out at the event, which lasted from noon to 2:30 p.m. But only 10 devices were distributed to students, because only about 10 families showed up to take advantage of the opportunity.

According to Vinh Trinh, the OUSD liaison to the city’s Oakland Promise education program, the school district made automated calls and sent emails to parents and legal guardians, as well as to “key people” such as principals, to let them know about the event.

The low student turnout at the event could have been because of families’ lack of internet and cell phone access.

Avila said she learned about the event from an email that was sent out by the OUSD communications office a day before the event. She had also previously heard about the project a few weeks earlier from a member of her church.

In the future, school district staff are planning to work with Columbia University and Sprint to conduct research on technology use, and to give out 1,000 more hotspot devices. According to Trinh, Sprint will interview students to find out about how they use the hotspots.

Avila said her daughter Carmen Avila Hernandez, who is hoping to apply to three different universities, will benefit from the family’s new hotspot, especially when it comes to things like filling out like financial aid applications.

“We just barely went the other day to a college thing” to fill out an aid application, Avila said, noting that they had to go to a school to do it. With a hotspot, she said, “I would have done this at home.”

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